My debut was meant to usher in a current of change in the fashion industry. But as the national conversation around racism expands, stories about discrimination in the fashion industry and at Vogue, in particular, have come under the spotlight.
After my 1974 cover, I shot hundreds more, including two more covers for Vogue. I was the first black model on the cover of French Elle. But my race limited me to significantly lower compensation than my white peers. The industry was slow to include other black people in other aspects of the fashion and beauty industry. I was reprimanded for requesting black photographers, makeup artists and hairstylists for photo shoots. Silence on race was then — and still is — the cost of admission to the fashion industry’s top echelons.
Anna Wintour, who has been the editor in chief of Vogue for over 30 years and is currently the doyenne of Condé Nast, admitted last week to a culture of structural exclusion at Vogue and across the fashion industry. Wow — after three decades, fashion’s leading arbiter has finally acknowledged that there may be a problem!
Managing racism is one of the things the fashion industry does do well. Year after year, companies inflict harm against black culture while actively gouging it for inspiration and taking all of the profit. In the past few years, brands have committed back-to-back racist faux pas. In 2018, Gucci created a minstrel-inspired line. Last year, Burberry created a hoodie with a noose around the neck. When called out, these companies plead for forgiveness, waving promises and money around. Then it’s back to exclusion as usual, until the next brand “accidentally” repeats racial vulgarity. The racism management cycle then begins anew.
Black culture contributes enormously to the fashion industry. But black people are not compensated for it. Brands do not retain and promote the many talented black professionals already in the fashion, beauty and media workforce. Brands do not significantly invest in black designers. The fashion industry pirates blackness for profit while excluding black people and preventing them from monetizing their talents.
For 50 years, I have fought for inclusion and equal pay in the fashion industry. My black model colleagues and I pushed for the inclusion of more black runway models, photographers, hairstylists and makeup artists. But decades later, the fight for inclusion is still fierce. In 2018, Beyoncé advocated for Tyler Mitchell, a black photographer, to shoot her September Vogue cover — making him the first black photographer to shoot a Vogue cover in its 125-year history. But Mitchell’s cover was not a spark. Since then, there have been no other black photographers who have shot a Vogue cover.
Wintour is artistic director for Condé Nast, a global media juggernaut that owns publications such as Vogue, GQ, the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Glamour and many more. Each month, Condé Nast’s digital content generates more than 1 billion views and reaches 423 million consumers across social platforms. Wintour steers the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual gala and is a force behind the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, which supports emerging fashion designers. Wintour is arguably the most powerful person in the world of fashion. Wintour’s power would ostensibly allow her to hold her peers in fashion accountable for making structural changes.
I propose the “Beverly Johnson Rule” for Condé Nast, similar to the Rooney Rule in the NFL that mandates that a diverse set of candidates must be interviewed for any open coaching and front office position. The “Beverly Johnson Rule” would require at least two black professionals to be meaningfully interviewed for influential positions. This rule would be especially relevant to boards of directors, C-suite executives, top editorial positions and other influential roles. I also invite chief executives of companies in the fashion, beauty and media industries to adopt this rule.
Whitney declared I was “the Jackie Robinson of modeling.” Forty-six years after my Vogue cover, I want to move from being an icon to an iconoclast and continue fighting the racism and exclusion that have been an ugly part of the beauty business for far too long.
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